Monday, 24 September 2012

Meeting A Troll...

I'm back on Twitter.

I can imagine the cries of  'I knew he wouldn't last!' from the Twitterati.
But give me a few minutes of your time and I'll tell you why I'm back and the real truth about exactly why I left in the first place.

In my blog of 12th August entitled 'Walking, Not Running' I talked about my time on Twitter and my basic reasons for leaving. I stand over a lot of what I said. The atmosphere there has changed and there have been negative stories in the media about trolling, etc, for months now. The brand has been damaged and Twitter needs to act fairly swiftly to repair it. At the time of writing that blog, for reasons that will become obvious, I was very sketchy about my own personal experience.

When I left Twitter numerous people thought it was as a result of an overreaction on my behalf. That my departure was a kneejerk reaction to a couple of  'trolling' or 'flaming' incidents or that I was attention seeking. The reality of the situation is that my wife and I were targeted for over 3 years.

It started in July 2009. I'd been on Twitter for over 2 years at that point having joined in May 2007, and I'd never had a problem. My account was followed by a fairly innocuous looking one which I followed back and within 10 minutes I had received a Direct Message (DM) calling me a 'Dirty f*cking Jewish scumbag'. I blocked the account and reported it as spam. The following week it happened again in an identical manner. A new follower, I followed back, received a string of abusive DM's, blocked and reported for spam. Two or three times a week. Sometimes two or three times a day. An almost daily cycle of blocking and reporting and intense verbal abuse. So I made my account private and the problem went away for a short while. There were no problems on Twitter but my Facebook account was hacked, my blog was spammed and my email address was flooded with foulmouthed and disgusting comments & images. Images of corpses and concentration camps and dismembered bodies.
Again, it eased off for a couple of weeks. I relaxed. Thought they'd finally tired of failing to get a reaction from me. Boy, was I wrong.

I didn't mention it to my wife. Didn't see the point of worrying her. But then she joined Twitter to see what it was like and grew to enjoy it. It wouldn't have been immediately obvious to outsiders that we were man and wife. She made the mistake though of changing her profile to state that she was 'The long suffering wife of @LeoTraynor'. Not a good idea. She received a DM stating 'Your husband is scum. A rotten b*stard and you're a wh*re.' She laughed it off. Blocked and reported and then the pattern started again. We got to the point of not accepting new followers at all and then one day my wife received a torrent of abuse via DM and on the timeline that was so vile she's never been on Twitter since - which is a real shame as she has so much to share and is far more interesting than I am.

People kept asking me 'Why you? Why would these guys want to have a go at you?' I couldn't answer them other than it was a couple of random nutters who didn't appreciate my political views or ethnic origins. Or even someone who couldn't solve my cryptic crosswords!

The whole thing escalated in June, July and August this year. I received more and more abuse on the timeline and via DMs. A crossword clue account I'd started (@Leo'sClue) was inundated with abuse too.
Then one day something happened that truly frightened me. I don't scare easily but this was vile.

I received a parcel at my home address. Nothing unusual there - I get a lots of post. I ripped it open and there was a tupperware lunchbox inside full of ashes. There was a note included 'Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz' I was physically sick.

I was petrified.
They had my address.
I reported it to the authorities and hoped for the best.
Two days later I opened my front door and there was a bunch of dead flowers with my wife's old Twitter username on it. Then that night I recieved a DM. 'You'll get home some day & ur b**ches throat will be cut & ur son will be gone.'
I got on to the authorities again but, polite and sympathetic as they were, there didn't seem much that could be done.
Every night for weeks I lost sleep over it. Listening for noises. Opening the door everday with trepidation. Trying to maintain a semblance of normality and not let my wife or son see that I was dying on the inside. Mortified that they might be in danger because of my big mouth or ancestry.

Then the last straw. I received another tweet, on the public timeline this time 'I hope you die screaming but not until you see me p*ss on ur wife'

I closed my account immediately and swore I'd never go back, in spite of the friends I have there.
I made it clear that I would pursue the troll or trolls and that I would take action. What I didn't say though was that I'd already been pursuing them for weeks and had a very good idea where, if not who, they were.

In July I was approached by a friend, who's basically an IT genius, and he offered some help. He said that he could trace the hackers and trolls for me using perfectly legal technology, which would lead to their IP addresses. I said yes. Then I baited them - I was deliberately more provocative toward them than ever I'd been before.

Holidays intervened. My Twitter account was deactivated but before doing so I posted links to my Google+ account, blog and invited people to contact me on Facebook. I'm delighted that a lot of my lovely friends did. I'm also delighted that The Troll did too.

It transpired that the abuse had emanated from three separate IP addresses in different corners of Ireland. Two of them were public wifi locations but the third....

The third location was the interesting one.

The third location was a friends house.

The Troll was his son. His 17yr old son.

I was gobsmacked.

I spoke to my friend at length. He told me how his son was always glued to his laptop, tablet or smartphone. How he couldn't watch a TV show without tweeting about it simultaneously. About how he'd become engrossed in conspiracy sites. It also became clear that the other two IP addresses had been used by his son.

He was horrified at what his son had done. Horrified, but not surprised. He wanted to call the authorities there and then and turn him in. But I said no.

A couple of days after that conversation I met my friend, his wife and their son in a quiet and discreet location. The son, The Troll who almost driven me mad, was totally unaware that I'd be joining them.

I sat down and ordered a big pot of tea. "Do you still like choc chip cookies?" I asked The Troll and he nodded eagerly, a shadow of the little boy that was flickering across his face.

We had a chat. I told them about my wife and son. I told them about my recent illnesses and bereavements and about the builders having been in. I asked after their business and asked The Troll how college is going. All bright and breezy and a trip down memory lane. Then The Troll's Dad tipped me the wink and I opened my bag and took out my manila folder.

I showed The Troll's mother and father screengrabs and printouts of his handiwork.

I showed them pictures of ashes and dead flowers.

I pointed out that one of the messages my wife received wishing me dead had arrived when I actually was gravely ill.

I told them of how I'd become so paranoid that I genuinely didn't know who to trust anymore.

I told them of nights when I'd walked the rooms, jumping at shadows and crying over the sleeping forms of my family for fear that they would suffer because of me.

Then it happened...

The Troll burst into tears. His dad gently restraining him from leaving the table.

I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him "Why?"

The Troll sat there for a moment and said "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing."

A game thing.

So, that's what it was...

The Troll's mother said "If you want to call the Garda we'll support you in that. I'm ashamed of him."

I responded: "I'm not criminalizing a 17 year old kid and ruining his future. But I will write about it - and you must all guarantee me that he'll go and see a counsellor about this or I will go legal on you."

Then I got up to leave. I looked The Troll in the eye and said "Stand up."

He stood. I said " Look at me. I'm a middle aged man with a limp and a wheeze and a son and a wife that I love. I'm not just a little avatar of an eye. You're better than this. You have a name of your own. Be proud of it. Don't hide it again and I won't ruin it if you play ball with your parents. Now shake hands."

"I'm sorry." he said, and looked like he meant it. "Thanks for giving me a break dude."

Then we shook on it.

And that is how I came to shake the hand of a troll.

FOOTNOTE: The methodology used by my IT friend has been verified as legal & was almost identical to what is described in this post  'Tracking a Troll..'  
I've received hundreds of comments which I will publish a selection of soon - including the negative ones. I have been snowed under with emails etc for the last few days but once things settle down I will work my way through them - thank you for your patience.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Walking, not running...

I'm giving away my age now but I must admit to being quite a fan of country music. The Waylon, Willie, Johnny and Kenny variety that is.

One of my favourite songs is 'The Gambler'. It sticks in my mind for a multitude of reasons. Firstly it's a good tune, even when it isn't the Rogers version. Secondly, it was the soundtrack of one of my summers in West Virginia, many moons ago. Thirdly, a dear old friend once said that it was a great piece of advice and I should listen to the words instead of just singing along. The line that stays with me is:

"If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run."

Over the years I've mastered the art of 'walking away' Sometimes you just have to accept that something, be it a job, a relationship or a social setting, is simply not worth hanging around for. Life's too short.

As I've mentioned previously on this blog I have dipped in and out of Twitter since 2007. I remember when I lived in Spain trying my damnedest to explain to people what micro blogging is, how it was the next big thing and how it could be a tremendous tool to either promote projects, build profiles or simply create a sense of social cohesion. People didn't get it. Many still don't and never will. The fact is though that Twitter has changed our relationship with the internet - whether mobile or desktop.

A month ago I was talking to an old friend about a business start up that he's involved in. He asked me about Twitter and I said he should get an account set up there to build its profile. Then he asked me what I thought of it personally. I replied "It's peaked." He seemed shocked at this and asked me why. My simple answer was "Too many trolls. Too many legal minefields. Not enough moderation. Too much negative publicity recently."

I spoke to him this weekend and he said that I seemed to have got it right. He'd been watching recent coverage of the current trolling epidemic. Soccer stars, television presenters, pop stars have been trolled to the extent that they're shutting down accounts left, right and centre.

On Saturday night it was my turn. I received a tweet that was so utterly repugnant that I said my goodbyes and deactivated my account.

But I'm not 'running away'. I'm not a 'victim'. The 'bullies' haven't won.

I'm simply tired of it.

This is the third time I've been seriously 'trolled'. Three times is quite enough, thank you very much.

The last time it happened my wife was targeted too and she thought I was mad to return there. I promised her that if it happened again that I'd close my account. I've kept my promise.

This morning she said to me "You know Leo, if you really want to you know I don't mind If you go back after a break." That's the kind of woman she is. But do you know what? I genuinely don't want to.

Years ago, when I lived in London. I frequented the same pub every lunch time for pie and mash and a chat with the regulars. The pub gradually changed though. A new clientele appeared. Younger, brasher, noisier. A jukebox was installed. The menu changed. Then it was redecorated. Soon it was no longer a pleasure to visit. It was noisy, unfriendly and uncomfortable.

One day a colleague said to me: "What's the point of going back when you don't like it any more?"

So I didn't go back - and lunchtime became a pleasure again.

I'm very grateful for all the lovely supportive messages I've received from the 'good guys'. It's humbling.

But I won't change my mind.

I'm walking away because I've had enough and why stay somewhere you don't actually need to be if it's become uncomfortable?

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Living in 'financial' times...

Eleven o'clock on Thursday morning and I'm on my fourth cup of tea.

My mobile rings and seeing from the caller ID that it's an old mate, I answer with an informal "Yup!"

"Leo, are you sitting down?" comes the reply. "It's *******. He was found dead this morning."

"What? Oh cr*p. Was it a heart attack?" was my immediate reaction. Natural question for a bloke of my age to ask when a contemporary dies suddenly.

"No idea. I'll give you a bell as soon as I get the full picture." comes the reply.

The day passes, I tell my wife the sad news and we speculate on why a seemingly fit guy has left the word so suddenly. We both reckon it'll turn out to be his heart.

In a way it was.

Ten thirty that night the phone rings. I look at the screen and see that its my pal from earlier. "Any news?" The answer to my question shakes me. "Yeah. It was a financial"

A 'financial'.

The abbreviated term for a suicide where financial woes have been a major contributing factor, if not the sole reason, for the deceased's tragic actions.

The third 'financial' I've heard of this year.

The chap who died was someone I'd worked with for a couple of years. We had our coffee breaks and lunches together 5 days a week for that period. He was a great character.

There are hundreds of suicides a year in Ireland and the UK. The most recent official statistics I can find are a couple of years old.

In 2010 a total of 486 people committed suicide in Ireland. 386 male and 100 female. (source)

In 2010 a total of 5,608 people committed suicide in the UK. 4,231 male and 1377 female. (source)

That's at least one suicide in Ireland and fifteen in the UK every day in 2010.

One heck of a lot of heartbreak and heartache.

A lot of empty chairs.

A lot of parents who've lost a child.

A lot of widows and widowers.

A lot of children with a Dad or Mum shaped hole in their hearts.

There's no way of knowing for sure exactly how many suicides are due in some part to money problems but reports (one from NY Times here) suggest that the numbers are increasing.

I've read the stories and wondered "What are the governments doing about this. Where are the churches in this situation?"

What I should have been asking is "What am I doing about this? How can I help? What can I do?"

We as individuals need to be on the lookout for those in need of support. We need to be proactive and ask those we're concerned about "Are you sure you're ok?"

We can't sit back tut - tutting and sighing and saying "Something needs to be done."

We need to get up off our backsides and actually do something ourselves.

A couple of years ago, after attending the funeral of a suicide victim, a friend and I were having a cup of coffee together. He turned to me and said: "I just don't get it. I don't understand that mindset where someone wants to kill themselves."

He came to understand it though.

He was the 'financial' who swallowed a bottle of pills a few nights ago.

                     If you suspect that someone you know is struggling please, please,

                                                   extend the hand of friendship.

It's better to be rebuffed and know you've tried than not to have tried at all.

If you are one of those who are struggling right now then please, I implore you, ask for help.

Talk to someone.

Don't be embarrassed to ask for help.

Don't give up.

"Be kind,
for everyone you meet
is fighting a hard battle."
~ Plato